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Friday Harbor teen sentenced to seven years for mother's murder
By Scott Rasmussen
The spirit of Sharon Hammel weighed heavily inside a San Juan County courtroom, as Judge Don Eaton ordered her 16-year-old son to spend the next seven years behind bars for the murder of his mother, and for setting the family home on fire in a systematic effort to cover up the crime.
On Nov. 9, Eaton, who presides over both juvenile and superior courts, accepted the foundation and finesse of an intricately designed plea bargain, in which the charges against the Friday Harbor teen were split in two. He agreed to plead guilty as a juvenile to first-degree murder and to receive the maximum sentence allowed, confinement up until the age of 21. And he also agreed as part of that deal to plead guilty to one count of first-degree arson, but as an adult.
In response to Eaton’s repeated inquires if he understood the consequences of a guilty plea, Taylor Hammel replied in a muffled voice that grew more certain as the questions continued, that he did.
In handing down a 31-month prison term for arson, the low end of state’s standard range for crime, Eaton echoed sentiments offered up in court by Elizabeth Fisher, a longtime Hammel family friend.
“I think (Sharon) would want him held responsible for what he’s done, but that she would have felt some responsibility for what happened, that there was something that she missed, some sign,” Fisher said. “I think she would want the community to help fix the problem that she did not see and offer Taylor some hope for the future.”
A single mother and former Town of Friday Harbor employee, Sharon Hammel, 49, died of multiple stab wounds to the upper torso and neck, or possibly by a fatal blow to the head that was inflicted upon her on the night of her death as well. Authorities believe that Hammel most likely was dead before the master bedroom of her home was set on fire.
Recent evaluations by a a psychiatrist and three psychologists, cited in court by attorneys on either side and by Eaton, paint a portrait of an shy but intelligent teen who’s plagued by self-doubt, underdeveloped social skills and the lack of an outlet for his anger and frustration.
Eaton noted those evaluations underscore a need for balance in sentencing. Defense attorney Robert O’Neal said that Hammel buckled under the weight of the pain and frustration which was so poorly equipped to handle, but, at heart, that he remains a “nice kid”.
“I think they got him right,” he said.
Backed by prosecutors and by O’Neal, the agreement also set the stage for Eaton to determine that “exceptional” circumstances exist in each case and that the penalties handed down should go beyond the state’s standard range of sentencing. As a result, Eaton ordered that the boy serve consecutive sentences, beginning in the juvenile rehabilitation system until he is 21, followed by two years in state prison and then by two years of probation.
He credited the 16-year-old, who has been awaiting trail in a juvenile detention center since his arrest in early April, with having served roughly seven months of the 31-month sentence for first-degree arson, a Class A felony. In weighing punishment against the possibilities of rehabilitation, Eaton said that he considered what Sharon Hammel might think, and that the penalties ought to “look more at the future than the past.”
Deputy prosecutor Charlie Silverman and O’Neal agreed that five years in juvenile detention would allow Hammel the “maximum time for treatment and to mature” before he joins adult convicts in prison at the age of 21.
Defense attorney O’Neal noted that although he clearly recalls his acts in setting the family home on fire, Hammel has no memory of bludgeoning his mother to death. Prosecutors initially argued that the boy, who was 15 at the time of the murder, should be tried as an adult, in part, because of the violent nature of her murder and the teen’s methodic steps to cover it up.
In arguing for a 41-month arson sentence, Silverman noted the firefighters that risked their lives in attempting to rescue someone they believed to be alive and trapped inside the Hammel’s Park Street home on the night of the fire. The boy allowed them to enter a home engulfed in flames knowing that his mother already was dead.
Eaton also ordered Hammel to pay $3,276 in fines, fees and restitution as part of the murder sentence. A restitution hearing for damage caused by the fire is slated for Jan. 12.